Blair versus the Brotherhood

Tony Blair's unofficial activities in the Middle East are looking increasingly dodgy – and increasingly incompatible with his official role as the Quartet's peace envoy.

Yesterday, the Guardian caused a stir with a story that Blair is to advise Egypt's Sisi regime on economic reform "in collaboration with a UAE-financed taskforce in Cairo".

Blair's office swiftly issued a statement saying he is not a "formal" adviser to Sisi and denying something that the Guardian's story hadn't actually claimed: "Neither Tony Blair, nor any of his organisations have any commercial interest in Egypt, nor are they seeking business in Egypt, nor have they ever discussed doing business in Egypt."

So what is Blair really up to? A report in the Financial Times, 10 days ago, shed some light on this. 

The UAE, along with some other Gulf states, is currently bankrolling the Sisi regime. But this will be money down the drain unless Sisi can be persuaded to take some tough economic decisions which are likely to be very unpopular in Egypt. The Financial Times quoted "one person familiar with the matter" as saying: 

"Abu Dhabi officials want Blair to help convince Sisi on economic reforms. Sisi can be impressed by Blair."

Blair, of course, has already declared his support for last year's military takeover in Egypt, describing it as a "necessary rescue of a nation".

The Guardian's story also notes that the UAE and Saudi Arabia "see themselves as the spearhead of a life-and-death regional struggle against political Islam". The irony of that is mind-boggling. No country has done more to politicise Islam than Saudi Arabia. In the UAE too, Islam is the "official" religion and sharia is "the main source" of legislation. 

So what the Saudis and Emiratis are engaged in is not so much a struggle against political Islam but a struggle between two forms of political Islam – the Saudi/Emirati versions on one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood's on the other.

Blair has also been drawn into their struggle, with the result that he is now meddling in the internal politics of the UAE as well as Egypt, once again siding with a repressive regime.

According to the Financial Times, Blair "has commissioned experts to write a report on the Brotherhood and the allegations by Egypt’s military leaders and its Gulf supporters that it is involved in terrorism":

"Mr Blair's aides say the 'briefing document' is for his personal use, while an Abu Dhabi spokesman insists it has not commissioned such a report. But people familiar with the briefing say it is being done on behalf of the UAE leadership.

"The Blair report is separate from a UK government inquiry into the Brotherhood, which was announced by David Cameron, the prime minister, in March. Western diplomats say the move followed Abu Dhabi pressure on London to take a tougher stance towards the Islamist group. The government probe is unlikely to recommend measures that will satisfy Abu Dhabi, such as a ban on the organisation.

"One diplomat familiar with Mr Blair's report says it will be used to 'inform' the British public and other western nations about the 'dangers' of the Brotherhood."

There is an important subtext here which also feeds into the UAE government's propaganda line. Demonising the Brotherhood and its Emirati offshoot, al-Islah, is a central plank in the government's effort to resist political change. The Emirati public are not much enamoured with the Brotherhood, so if criticisms and calls for reform can be portrayed as Brotherhood-inspired there is less need to take them seriously.

This is largely a diversionary tactic, since many of the complaints made by the Brotherhood are not only justified but have also been made by others who are certainly not Islamists, including a UN Special Rapporteur and the US State Department.

Britain, however, in the eyes of UAE propagandists, is rife with Brotherhood sympathisers and front organisations, so Blair's report and its mission to "inform" the British public about the "dangers" of the Brotherhood should probably be viewed in that context.

Last month, an Emirati newspaper, The National, published a lengthy investigation into what it said were Brotherhood front organisations in Britain.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 3 July 2014